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Four Questions For: Mary Catherine Swanson

By Rob Gira, Executive Vice President, AVID Center

Mary Catherine Swanson taught high school English for 20 years. During that time she was instrumental in developing numerous award-winning language arts programs. In 1980 she developed AVID, a secondary school program that prepares underachieving students for four-year college entry. Today 95 percent of AVID graduates enroll in college. Mary Catherine created the AVID Center in 1992 to support the in-school system.

Among the awards and recognition Mary Catherine has received are the A+ Award for Reaching the Goals of America 2000 from the U.S. Department of Education; the EXCEL Award for Excellence in Teaching; the Salute to Excellence from the American Association for Higher Education; the Headliner of the Year from the San Diego Press Club; Cable’s Leaders in Learning Award for General Excellence, a recognition of her innovative leadership; University of San Diego Remarkable Leader in Education; and University of California Outstanding Alumnus.

CNN/Time Magazine named her America’s Best Teacher in 2001, and she was one of three 2001 recipients of the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education. She is listed in Who’s Who in America, and has been the commencement speaker at numerous universities, earning three honorary doctorates.

Swanson is the only public school teacher ever to have won the $50,000 award for Pioneering Achievement in Education from the Charles A. Dana Foundation in New York. In presenting that award, the Foundation cited her for “heeding the teacher’s calling at the highest level of professional dedication in developing AVID, an imaginative restructuring of the school day that has given thousands of students the skills, support, and guidance that they need to fulfill their potential—far too tragically overlooked—to prepare for a college education.”

Swanson’s contribution to American education has also been recognized by Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, who wrote, “I don’t know any single person in the country who has done more for our school children than AVID founder Mary Catherine Swanson.”

In 2006, Mary Catherine retired as CEO, though she remains on the board of directors. In recognition of her retirement, the board of directors established a perpetual Founder’s Scholarship to be given to one AVID student each year. The $50,000 scholarship may be used by the honored student for college expenses.

She is married and the mother of Tom Swanson, a graduate of Stanford University and an AP History teacher at Del Norte High School in San Diego, CA. Tom's decision to enter teaching is Mary Catherine’s proudest moment...below is an excerpt from Rob Gira's interview with Mary Catherine from AVID College Ready Radio.

Those who haven’t read the book Wall of Fame or haven’t heard you speak don’t know what motivated you to create this new concept, AVID, at Clairemont High School. What were the factors that drove you to do it?

In 1980 the San Diego Unified School District went under federal court order to integrate, and I was English Department Chair at a mostly all-white academic school. Students would be bussed in from the poorest schools in the district, and most came from families who had never been to college. It seemed to me we had two choices: either put all of these students in remedial classes, what they were used to, or make use of the four years’ time we would have with them. Perhaps we could put them in rigorous courses and give them the support they needed. I chose the latter path.

What has been the biggest unexpected surprise that you have discovered either about yourself or the AVID system or your AVID students in the course of your work with AVID? Did anything happen that you did not expect to happen?

The relationship you have with the students. I loved my previous AP classes and loved those students, but they would have succeeded whether or not I was really there. Once I did AVID, it was so clear that we needed each other. They wanted to follow my guidance, and that’s what a teacher wants more than anything else: students who want to learn. We began to see great success. I still hear from some of my students today and they have been so successful that it is very rewarding.

Working with children of poverty is a noble and challenging experience. Almost all of your first 30 AVID students came from families where there was no experience with colleges and universities, not to mention the challenging coursework you insisted they take at Clairemont. What did you have to do to bolster them and their families?

Not doing enough work with families was a big mistake I made in those early years. Thankfully we emphasize that much more today in AVID, but I did not spend enough time with the parents because I focused so much on the students. The parents lived far away, and they didn’t feel comfortable at the school, and a great number of them did not speak English well. What I should have done was hold parent meetings in their local communities, although I did visit each of the students’ homes at least once or twice. But the whole family needs to be supported in order to progress the student. As an example of having to intervene, Vince Jones was one particular student who worked hard and had the good grades to go to college, but he was afraid. He wasn’t truthful with me because he was nervous when I asked him where he sent his college application. He said University of California of Irvine, and oddly we did not receive his acceptance letter. So I called Irvine and they did not receive his application. I went to his home, got the application, and took him to Irvine.  He interviewed and got in.

What were some of your early revelations about the structure of the AVID classroom, the curriculum, tutorials, etc.?

What I thought I was going to do was lots of remediation as was typical in the ‘80s. I thought I was going to remediate while I accelerated. It was too much; there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do it. I gave all of these new students’ skill tests and realized remediation would not work; it would take too long and they aren’t really going to learn great things that way! What we ended up doing was putting them in the toughest classes and we just worked hard. Kids can’t learn what they are never given and we need to connect their skills to what they are actually doing so they can enjoy challenging, interesting work. I couldn’t make the students’ success a reality within the system we had, so I knew I had to change the system. We had to teach differently and think differently. What I found after four years was that our standardized test scores in English Language Arts went up 47% and in mathematics it went up 35%, higher than any other school in the district. The district and state took note of it, and this was the launching pad for AVID. Of course, the most important statistic to me was that 29 of my first 30 students went to college, mostly four year universities.  Today, all of them have graduated from four year universities.

You can listen to our entire interview with Mary Catherine Swanson here: Part 1, Part 2.


For more on AVID, visit http://avid.org/what-is-avid.ashx.

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